CHICAGO -- Hull House, the Chicago social services organization founded more than 120 years ago by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, closed Friday after running out of money.
The agency said the poor economy resulted in more demand for its services but also made it harder to raise money to cover its costs. Hull House has been providing child care, job training, housing assistance and other services for 60,000 people a year in the Chicago area.
The agency had announced plans to close in the spring, but Friday's shutdown was unexpected, striking some 300 employees with a devastating and unexpected blow. They received layoff notices and final paychecks and then spent the day packing their belongings and saying tearful good-byes. Many said they were startled to learn their insurance ended almost two weeks ago.
"It's been my life," said Dianne Turner, who spent 25 years teaching families in Chicago housing projects how to break the cycle of poverty. "It wasn't about the pay. It was about seeing a family go from feeling hopeless to being hopeful and feeling like they can do things."
Turner said she knows what it's like to live in the projects and dream of something better. She got her first job as a teenager through Hull House and said the organization helped teach her the value of education, how to save money and how to be a leader.
Founded in 1889, Hull House was the best known of the 400 settlement houses in the United States in the early 1900s. The settlements were designed to provide services to immigrants and the poor while uplifting them through culture, education and recreation. At its peak, Hull House served more than 9,000 people a week, offering medical help, an art gallery, citizenship classes, a gardening club and a gym with sports programs.
Victoria Brown, a history professor at Grinnell College and author of "The Education of Jane Addams," said the closure was "an absolute puzzle" and wondered why officials had not publicized the financial problems earlier in an effort to save the agency.
"I wish we would have known. Why weren't they screaming this from the rooftops?" said Brown. Addams "was known as gentle, not confrontational, but one of her favorite words was `stupid.' She would say, `This is just stupid. How could this have happened?'"
Hull House Association board Chairman Stephen Saunders did not immediately return phone calls for comment on Friday.
Agency officials have said it is millions of dollars in debt and the decision to close came after managers and trustees worked for two years to reduce operating costs and improve services.
Other service agencies have been stepping in to help provide services to Hull House clients.
Lizzie Harrington, 32, received help from Hull House when she was a teenager in foster care and wanted to live independently. She went on to become a project director for a Hull House program that helps low-income people find jobs. The closure, she said, has employees devastated and angry.
"It's unfortunate, and it's been emotional," Harrington said. "I have a special connection to this place. This was part of my childhood."
The Hull House agency isn't affiliated with the University of Illinois at Chicago's Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, which will remain open. But museum officials were at the social service agency Friday, carting away boxes of files they said would be archived and preserved at the museum. The Hull House site on Chicago's West Side is a National Historic Landmark.
Regina Boyd, who has been a housing case manager at Hull House since 2003, said the closure was bittersweet.
"I believe when one door closes another one opens," she said. "But I love the legacy of Jane Addams, and I'm hoping that someone or something comes along," to continue that legacy.
"I feel her spirit. Her legacy is not over in my heart and spirit. It's not."